The Next 48 Hours May Shape Napa Valley For Years to Come

At 9:32 AM this morning, the Napa County Office of Emergency Services issued its latest set of evacuation warnings in the face of the Glass Incident, a fire which has consumed more than 48,000 acres and continues to burn nearly uncontained in the heart of Napa County and over the mountains into Sonoma County.

These new warnings effectively say that the entire town of St. Helena (a portion of which is already under mandatory evacuation) and all businesses and residences north of Whitehall Lane are on notice that they may be asked to evacuate soon, just as the residents of Calistoga were forced to do on Monday evening.

Authorities have issued these warnings in the face of unfortunate meteorological news about increasing atmospheric pressure that will drive higher temperatures, and more concerning, wind activity on Thursday and Friday. This resulted in a Red Flag warning for the period beginning 1:00 PM Pacific on Thursday through the end of day on Friday.

As you can see from the evacuation map above, which also shows fire activity, the primary fear would be the two main areas of the fire joining together and inundating the valley floor. This could occur in a situation where high winds drive burning embers into the heart of the valley, torching homes, wineries, and other businesses in the area.

To say this would be a disaster doesn’t quite begin to describe it.

Let’s start with the evacuation itself. Currently the Silverado Trail is closed due to the fire front on the east side of the valley. Highway 29 into and through St. Helena has also been closed at various times in the last 72 hours, and it is definitely closed where it becomes Highway 128 leading out of the valley north of Calistoga.

That means that there’s only one way out of St. Helena if that mandatory evacuation order comes, and that’s south on Highway 29. Those of us used to driving that highway know that it’s a traffic shitshow on any normal day. Most of us avoid it at all costs, preferring to use the Silverado Trail or other side roads to get where we’re going whenever possible.

Granted, traffic would only be one way during an evacuation, but that doesn’t offer much consolation. Trying to get 6000 or so people out of town quickly would be a nightmare even if all routes out of town were open.

Someone I was just e-mailing said that most of the folks she knows who live in St. Helena left when the west side of town was evacuated on Sunday. I hope this is true. And anyone who is still there should consider preemptively leaving before mandatory evacuation orders arrive. Especially if they have somewhere they can go. At the very least they should have their car packed, fueled up, and pointed in the right direction so they can leave at a moment’s notice.

Of course, that’s not so easy to do if you’re a winemaker with a winery full of fermenting juice. Telling a winemaker that she has to just walk away from an entire vintage in the middle of the crush isn’t exactly an easy thing to swallow.

But that’s exactly what Cathy Corison is going to have to do if the mandatory evacuation order comes through, since her winery (and her home) are both squarely in the current warning zone.

“I’m extremely lucky,” says Corison, who typically harvests grapes two to four weeks earlier than many of her neighbors. “Everything is ticking down to dryness. Not being here for a couple of days won’t be a huge problem, though I am currently in the hunt for a commercial air filter, because I’m worried about all this smoke even though the winery is sealed up as tight as we can get it.”

This evacuation would come at the absolute worst time for most of the winemakers in and around St. Helena. Along with evacuations, power will almost certainly be cut to the area (a strong possibility even without an evacuation) meaning pumps and other equipment won’t work to keep wine tanks cool or move wine around, AC units won’t work, and anything without an attached gas tank will be out of commission unless the winery has a generator on hand.

As with previous fires in 2017, some winemakers will be unable to access their wines in mid-fermentation. In combination with the potential loss of temperature control, this can make for unplanned extended macerations that can wreak havoc with a wine’s balance and tannic profile.

While many wineries harvested grapes in advance of the heatwave that spawned the current fires, there are still grapes on the vine in and around St. Helena. Worries about smoke taint in the vineyards have been occupying winemakers for weeks, but a fire tearing across the valley would put an unfortunate end to those worries.

The one thing that St. Helena and its immediate environs have going for it is the sheer extent of vineyards on the valley floor. As we have seen in the past few years’ fire seasons, vineyards, especially at this time of year, serve as particularly good fire breaks, given how little easily combustible material they contain.

Consequently, even if windblown burning embers (which I would guess are the main concern driving this latest evacuation warning) are thrown into the heart of the valley, any fires that are started will have a hard time spreading through the areas occupied by vineyards.

That doesn’t mean homes and wineries can’t burn if embers land in the wrong spot, but it does mean that the kind of destruction we’ve seen in some of the wooded sections of the valley won’t be repeated on the valley floor.

In case you can’t tell, I’m worried for Napa. I’m worried for the people who live and work there. The people who depend upon the wine industry and its associated tourist traffic to put food on their table. Wealthy winery owners can, and do rebuild. But for every one of them there are dozens of field workers, restaurant workers, tasting room employees, and hotel maids that were already suffering thanks to the pandemic.

The list of wineries that have already burned or been damaged continues to grow.

After the 2017 fires, which only marginally impacted the main tourist areas of the valley, Napa saw a huge dip in visitation, as consumers feared (incorrectly) arriving to find a disaster area. The Napa Wine Train, for instance, saw a 75% drop in ridership following the 2017 fires.

These fires, and the images that will accompany them in the aftermath, already have the potential to have the same effects, even without the inundation of a well-known town like St. Helena.

It’s terrifying and painful to think about the impact that this disaster, combined with the pandemic, may have on Napa. But there are more important, pressing things to worry about right now, and that’s the health and safety of the people who live and work in the area.

If that’s you, please be safe, and if you can, take a couple of days and go somewhere else, ideally before the police arrive and force you to do so.

We’re all praying it doesn’t come to that, and rooting for the incredible heroism of all those on the front lines of this disaster.

If you’re safely at home somewhere else, like me, I hope you’ll drink some Napa (and while you’re at it, some Sonoma) wine, and pray to the weather gods or whatever source you might petition for a little relief.

Image courtesy of the ESRI ArcGIS Fire Situational Awareness web site.

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Alentejo Sizzles and the Wine Biz Fizzles (Recent NVWA Articles)

image: NVWA

Just a quick hit today to tell you about my most recent articles for the Napa Valley Wine Academy. The latest is my final report from my Alentejo media jaunt, focusing on a handful of the region’s producers who are turning Alentejo’s reputation as a hot area pumping out ripe, enormous wines a bit on its head: New Kid, Old Towns.

The next, released a bit earlier in August, is What Does the U.S. Wine Business Need to Combat Racism? It Needs You. As you can almost certainly discern from that title, it includes my thoughts on systemic racism in the U.S. wine industry, and specifically how wine education can help to combat it. And yeah, I’ve already received some hate e-mail for it, which I think underscores the need for pieces like that to be written.

Anyway, I’d love to know your thoughts on the above (unless you’re actually racist, in which case, please piss off forever ;-).


Upscale your palate! My new books are now available from Rockridge Press!

Copyright © 2020. Originally at Alentejo Sizzles and the Wine Biz Fizzles (Recent NVWA Articles) from - for personal, non-commercial use only. Cheers!

Daily Wine News: Slow Wine

Sophia McDonald Bennett delves into the story behind Slow Wine in Wine Enthusiast. “The publication was first available in Italy in 2010. It began to feature Slovenian wineries a few years later and added California in 2017. Oregon was the next U.S. state to be added in 2019. Plans are to include New York and Washington producers in 2021… This emphasis on values is one of the many things that sets the project apart. Each year, contributing writers visit every featured winery for a first-hand look at its operations. Those visits were suspended this year because of Covid-19, but this practice will resume in the future.”

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Esther Mobley continues to report on Napa Valley wineries destroyed in the Glass Fire, disputing rumors about those reportedly damaged.

In Wine-Searcher, Kathleen Willcox reports on how Napa producers are scrambling to save the 2020 vintage as fires spread once again.

In Food & Wine, Oset Babür talks to Hope Well Wine and Vineyards’ Mimi Casteel about the importance of regenerative farming for the future of wine.

For Thrillist, Tom Burson explores Germany’s tradition of Federweisser. “From late September and into October you can find the stuff mass-consumed along the Rhine’s mighty shores and in every gutsschänke (wine tavern) with side of zwiebelkuchen (onion cake). Most often though, you see it in two-liter jugs purchased along highways, hiking trails, and at the Weinprobierstand by parched cyclists, hikers, and road-trippers like some magical German moonshine.”

In Wine Enthusiast, Lauren Mowery looks at three cool-climate European white wines that have flourished abroad: Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, and Scheurebe.

Daily Wine News: Burning, Again

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley has been busy reporting on the Glass Fire, including a running list of Napa Valley wineries that have been damaged or destroyed in the fire, and reporting on how Napa’s famed castle Castello di Amorosa being one of many wineries to suffer losses.

In Wine Spectator, Aaron Romano gives an update on the impact of the Glass Fire on the communities of Napa and Sonoma counties.

Alder Yarrow’s sister, Shannon, is on the front lines fighting what has become known as the Glass Fire. He shares updates from her and other firefighter crews. “As I was writing this, I received another text from my sister saying “Sterling didn’t make it.” So that’s an unconfirmed report that Sterling Vineyards may have burned. She says fellow firefighters claimed to have watched the winery’s famous gondolas plummeting to the ground. She has not yet seen for herself if the winery is a total loss yet, or not.”

In SevenFifty Daily, Kristen Bieler explores how South African sommelier Tinashe Nyamudoka is creating a new model for a Black-owned wine brand in a country fraught with inequality.

Aaron Hutcherson talks to Phil Long of Longevity Wines, also the president of the Association of African American Vintners, in Food & Wine.

In the New York Times, Eric Asimov offers tips on how to decode a wine label.

Napa and Sonoma Burn Again. Horribly.

I don’t know how coherent this particular piece is going to be, as I watch the social media evidence of friends and loved ones fleeing their homes, and as I keep tabs on my sister Shannon, who is on the front lines fighting what has become known as the Glass Incident fire. Bear with me as I do my best.

At around 3:45 AM on Sunday, in the midst of a Red Flag warning, something (no one is yet sure what) sparked a fire in the hills to the northwest of Napa Valley. With 95 degree temperatures on Saturday, and an even hotter day on Sunday, very low humidity, and some offshore winds blowing, that fire, which was named the Glass Fire grew exponentially and tore down the hill towards Napa Valley and the towns of Calistoga and St. Helena

Later that day, two more fires started across the valley in the Mayacamas Mountains, possibly from blown embers. By the early hours of Monday morning, these fires had combined into a single fire that has, to date, burned more than 11,000 acres and is continuing to burn uncontained, as firefighters and first responders scramble to evacuate residents.

The fire crossed Silverado Trail late last night at Lodi Lane, south of St. Helena, and began burning the valley floor in a phenomenon known as spotting, as embers and fallen trees advance a fire into a new area, it does not seem to have spread rapidly from that point however, possibly due to the number of vineyards in the area, which burn quite poorly unless faced with massive walls of flame.

My sister spent the day on Sunday working the fire line near Rombauer Vineyards where this morning there was still a crew working to keep the fire away from the winery. Here’s a video she shared with me, taken by Bodega Volunteer Fire Department Captain Boone Vale.

I got a chance to see through my sister’s dash cam as she drove up Silverado Trail this morning around 10 AM, and I could see the fire burning down to, but not across the Silverado Trail between Zinfandel Lane and the Pope Street bridge.

She pointed out the huge column of black smoke from behind the hill to the right of Silverado Trail and said, “See that dark smoke? You don’t get that from just trees and brush burning. That’s structures on fire.” It’s unclear whether they were private homes or wineries or both, but that area includes wineries such as Joseph Phelps, Bulgheroni Estates, and more.

Damage reports, as they always are in these situations where access to the burn zone is highly restricted, are spotty and unreliable. We do have confirmation that Chateau Boswell has burned down, and that there is fire damage at the Schramsberg Property, Castello di Amarosa, Failla Vineyards, and Rombauer, but that so far, all of those wineries are still standing. Duckhorn, too, which my sister predicted might go overnight, was miraculously saved from the flames.

Despite fire maps that look like this…

The town of St. Helena is still relatively unscathed, as are wineries such as Charles Krug, which you can see peeking through as text in between the dots that indicate spot fires.

My sister was deployed to the ridge above Meadowood Resort around lunchtime today where she described large explosions (likely propane tanks) and said she was watching the golf course and a major building she thought was the restaurant on fire. An hour or two later I saw this photo on Twitter:

Napa and Sonoma Burn Again. Horribly.

That’s the restaurant burning, as she feared.

Crews, including my sister’s are working valiantly, but many are having to prioritize saving and evacuating people over structures, and structure defense over containing the fire, so it’s a big juggling act and unfortunately the fire is spreading unchecked through parts of Napa Valley.

Napa and Sonoma Burn Again. Horribly.
My sister “mopping up” hotspots on Madrone Knoll above Meadowood today.

Just got a text as I was writing this saying “Sterling didn’t make it.” So that’s an unconfirmed report that Sterling Vineyards may have burned. She says fellow firefighters claimed to have watched the winery’s famous gondolas plummeting to the ground. She has not yet seen for herself if the winery is a total loss yet, or not.

Over the hills towards Sonoma, my sister also reports hearing that Ledson Vineyards succumbed to the flames as the fire moved down towards Highway 12, where it continues to encroach on communities such as Kenwood, Glen Ellen, and the Santa Rosa neighborhoods of Oakmont.

Looking at the fire maps, and watching things unfold through the valiant reporting of people like Sarah Stierch here’s what has me worried at the moment.

There’s a whole area, marked in purple below, that seems like it will almost certainly burn fully. That’s where Schramsberg Vineyards is.

Napa and Sonoma Burn Again. Horribly.
Fire map showing Sonoma County evacuation areas and fire inundation zones.

The whole left side of that orange mandatory evacuation zone is the city of Santa Rosa, population 177,586. If the fire keeps moving west, there will be a lot of people losing their homes.

Farther to the south than is shown on the image above, a huge tract of open space called Trione-Annadel State Park is currently seeing spot fires from blowing embers. If it fully catches fire, we may see a repeat of the kind of behavior we saw when the fire first started: tons of virgin fuel from roughly 8 square miles of forested open space that may go up with a whoosh, and barrel down on Bennett Valley, where there are many wineries and private residences.

My sister and her fellow firefighters are working on just a few hours’ sleep and doing heroic work to keep people safe. Many have asked me to extend their thanks to her. She appreciates all the gratitude and encourages everyone to donate to her outfit, the Bodega Volunteer Fire Department.

Other worthy recipients of monetary support right now are Undocufund, which supports many of the undocumented workers whose livelihoods are likely to be most affected by this disaster, the Napa Valley Community Foundation and the Sonoma County Resilience Fund.

More to come as I hear it.

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Wine News: What I’m Reading the Week of 9/27/20

Welcome to my weekly roundup of the wine stories that I find of interest on the web. I post them to my magazine on Flipboard, but for those of you who aren’t Flipboard inclined, here’s everything I’ve strained out of the wine-related muck for the week.

California wildfires erupt in wine country, damaging Santa Rosa and prompting evacuations
Welcome to the “wildfire edition” of this news roundup.

Famed California winery destroyed as fast-moving fires take over wine country
Chateau Boswell gone, others, too.

Glass Incident Fire Damages or Destroys at Least Seven Vineyards, Many More Remain in Jeopardy
A decent rundown.

Fast-Moving Wildfires Erupt in Napa, Spread to Sonoma, Striking Another Blow to 2020 Harvest
Spectator’s take.

Wine – more sustainable than most crops?
When farmed well, especially.

About 350 Sonoma County farmworkers have contracted the coronavirus
Brutal situation. We have to do better by them.

California’s Next Generation Lead Women Winemakers and the Promise That Accompanies Their Success
A couple of nice profiles.

Concern over wildfire smoke’s impact on Washington grape harvest and wine quality
Washington, too.

I’ve Supported the Wine Industry for Years. Why Won’t it Support Me?
Worth reading.

In praise of the blockbuster wine
Robert Joseph has it right.

Life Lessons with… Stephen & Prue Henschke
Another of these cute Q&As

Lebanon Needs You to Buy Its Wines. And, Yes, They’re Really Good
Elin McCoy makes the case.

Winemakers Face Up to Smoke Taint Reality
It’s a problem for sure.

Missing 150-year-old madeira
Jancis describes her desert-island wine.

California’s wineries tossed into chaos with backlogged tests for smoke taint

Richard Hemming MW: Does wine education make any difference?
The stats say no. We need more wine appreciation, not education. And there’s a difference.

‘Wet ashtray’ wine grapes left to birds as fires choke West Coast vineyards
Reuters on smoke taint.

The Vineyards of the Canary Islands Are Covered in Volcanic Ash
A primer on the Canaries.

This year’s wildfires are likely ‘the single worst disaster the wine-grape growing community has ever faced’
And this article was written before the Glass fire.

Italian Wine Harvest Redeems a Dark Year
Some good news from Italy.

Exploring South Africa’s Pinotage Wine Grape
Mark Stock offers a primer.

How to Read a Wine Label, in 12 Easy Lessons
Eric Asimov analyzes quite a few.

Watch 60,000 Bottles’ Worth of Wine Burst from a Broken Tank in Spain
Just don’t call it ASMR.

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Wine Reviews: Weekly Mini Round-Up For September 28, 2020

I taste a bunch-o-wine (technical term for more than most people). So each week, I share some of my wine reviews (mostly from samples) and tasting notes in a “mini-review” format.
They are meant to be quirky, fun, and (mostly) easily-digestible reviews of (mostly) currently available wines (click here for the skinny on how to read them), and are presented links to help you find them, so that you can try them out for yourself. Cheers!

Upscale your palate! My new books are now available from Rockridge Press!

Copyright © 2020. Originally at Wine Reviews: Weekly Mini Round-Up For September 28, 2020 from - for personal, non-commercial use only. Cheers!